Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Why working-class kids still get working-class jobs

Most of us will remain in the same social class as our parents and the same social class as their parents before them. It is a sobering thought. Despite the feel-good rhetoric of the self-help industry and the warm words of politicians, a child born into a poor family is almost certain to remain poor when they get older. The more unequal a society is, the harder it is for a child to escape his or her upbringing.

Rather than provide an honest appraisal of such inequalities, however, politicians offer endless sermons about ‘social mobility’ and ‘meritocracy’.

Most people on the left will have been dismissed at some point by an older peer, probably with an arrogant and lofty wave of the hand, as ‘unrealistic’ – or, worse still, as utopian.

Yet there are few ideas as utopian as that of meritocracy. A child born on a council estate can ‘get on’ only in the sense that a morbidly obese runner can beat Usain Bolt in the hundred metres. It could happen – the Jamaican might be struck by lightning, for example – but it probably won’t. And especially not if Bolt’s challenger is British: if you are British and poor you are less likely to escape your circumstances than in any other advanced country apart from the United States.

According to a 2007 study, poor but bright children are overtaken by less intelligent classmates from wealthier backgrounds in the very first years of schooling. The children of wealthier parents are more likely to go to the best schools (properties in desirable catchment areas cost on average 42 per cent more), eat the best food, have access to ‘high culture’ and a place to do their homework. They also benefit from a number of other forms of social and cultural ‘capital’ their working-class counterparts lack. As children get older these inequalities are concentrated further. Around 10 per cent of young people at the bottom rung of the social ladder go on to university, compared with over 80 per cent of those from professional or managerial backgrounds. And, as universities minister David Willetts never tires of pointing out, graduates will earn on average £100,000 more over a lifetime than non-graduates.

Meritocracy is an idea evoked by well-intentioned people who lack the courage to confront inequality, and by less well-intentioned people who use it to justify privilege and the accumulation of wealth. And yet it is a misnomer; the drive to improve social mobility and promote ‘equality of opportunity’ is always liable to stall if inequality isn’t addressed. As Washington Post writer Ezra Klein has written:

‘A rich parent can purchase test prep a poor parent can’t. A rich parent can usher their children into social networks a poor parent can’t. A rich parent can make donations to Harvard that a poor parent can’t.

‘The inequalities of the parents always and everywhere become the inequalities of the children.’

The problem, if you haven’t already grasped it, is that a genuine meritocracy could only exist alongside absolute equality; and the latter could only be brought into existence through massive repression.

Before you sink into a state of despair, this doesn’t mean that meaningful improvements cannot be made. There are lots of areas in which the absolute is impossible but where incremental change is worthwhile; only the privileged have the luxury of calling half a loaf the same as no bread after all.

In truth, however, social mobility is only ever likely to improve if the wealthiest members of society get a little bit ‘poorer’ and the poorest get a little wealthier. Studies show that social mobility improves in more equal societies: Norway has the greatest level of social mobility, followed by Denmark, Sweden and Finland. Britain and the US are the most unequal western societies in terms of income distribution and, unsurprisingly, have lower rates of social mobility.

The first step in redressing the problem would be an admission from our politicians that the interests of the stockbroker are not the same as that of the nurse or refuse collector, and that while massive inequalities exist we can never be ‘one nation’.


James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward and writes a weekly column for Progress. He tweets @J_Bloodworth


Photo: Jon Cockley

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James Bloodworth

is a journalist and author of The Myth of Meritocracy


  • This is such a superb and true article. However, I feel that given the opportunity, intelligent people will always flourish – however rich or poor they are. The dim child who has a more wealthier and “cultured” household or a pushier parent (I’ve seen this happen in so many middle-class families that it drives me insane) should always lose out later in life to the intelligent but less privileged person for the simple fact that in an interview, you can really see who’s bright and who’s been tutored 24/7 without the slightest wit. The poorer pupil or the pupil in a wealthier house with less privileged parents tend to become more independent and act on their own will.

    So what really matters is to provide as many opportunities to these poor pupils as possible. Grammar schools are for one thing a great way of opening up the ladder. Of course, the 11+ in grammars have become very much an exercise for the middle-class and pushy parents but 11+ in private schools are different – they involve extracurricular CVs and essentially the interview. I’ve seen plenty of pupils struggle at these schools or fail to even be admitted into them because their true intelligence are exposed in conversations and interviews. I’ve also seen less knowledgeable, poor pupils who have been admitted on grounds for “having potential” excelling when the opportunities are available.

    Assisted bursary places into private schools, which has sadly been axed thanks to the Labour Government was another superb initiative spearheaded by Margaret Thatcher – opening up opportunities to those who had potential. Better standards in schools, better teachers, better ethos and expectations and better funding all play a part into it. The attitude and culture is most important. As we have seen with the Academies, this can be tackled.

    Inner-city London schools are now better than ever.

    It’s funny how the Left have tried to deny opportunity to the working class wherever possible – whether it be grammar, private, academies, tougher GCSEs matching independent preferences to iGCSEs, basic spelling and grammar assessments – the Left are actually the ones currently burning away the ladder of bright working class kids.

  • The problem is how do we find solutions.

    1) Bring back the opportunity of repeating A /AS Levels in January which Gove has stopped for the first time ever thus depriving 1000s and 1000s of students the chance to resit exams often because of issues the previous summer like illnesses, family issues, teacher turnover/inexperienced A Level teaching etc.,
    2) Encourage & reward good honours graduates from the Russell group into teaching in state comps
    3) Have uniform standards of homework setting in all years at GCSE/A Level across all comps & FE ( currently there are FE colleges who have shocking records of setting A Level homework )
    4) More tutoring after 3.30 in most comps for the weaker English/Maths kids
    5) Raise expectations in weaker schools/FE so that Heads of Department are more accountable for low results in their classes & demand action plans
    6) Completely review FE colleges whose standards and results are well below England & Wales and whose ethos resembles a holiday camp rather than an learning institution with high expections.

  • Selection at 11 years ( its now little 10 year olds in some areas as its done early in year 6) is barbaric & back to the 1950s. We do not want early creaming kids off to such selective state schools at this age- indeed the comprehensive school provides for all abilities and the massive increase in passes at GCSE/A Level & university progression shows a system which provides for many kids. The Tories and ourselves have gone too far down the road of marketisation, deregulation & fragmentation; its the lower working class who get left out by all of this as they end up in weaker schools as middle class always choose the best. Maybe we need more local high schools for all which cater for all like the rest of advanced societies instead of this idiocy of kids going off in a million directions every day.

  • Well with all due respect, I did the 11+ only a few years ago and my sister did a year ago. The system is nothing as tripartite as it used to be. As I said, we need reform so comprehensives aren’t grubby – but grammar should always exist – if you ever want to provide working-class kids an opportunity to get up the ladder. The massive increase in passes at GCSE/A Level and university progression was a con – not only did the latter’s 50% target persuade people to follow nonsensical courses but it also started the whole tuition fee fiasco. It was not about the very intelligent but for people regardless of intelligence.The lower working/middle class benefit from Tories’ “deregulation” – the Academies Programme has revolutionised Britain. Areas which used to be ‘coasting’ (or poorly-ranked from a previous soft-touch Ofsted) are now excelling. Giving more freedom to teach will help specialists and teachers push their pupils – teach harder stuff earlier or adjust to how it suits their pupils needs. An important explanation why privates are so successful is that they can choose harder GCSE (iGCSE) boards and their Curriculums prepare them for these exams five, six years in advance – from basics to advanced. This cannot happen in a state school where they must rigidly adhere to a KS3 syllabus – this stops them from preparing them for more advanced material until Years 10 and 11 – which by then is too much stress and not worth the effort to put their pupils into harder GCSE boards. That truly does cheat both the teacher and the bright working class pupil

  • The idea that the 11+ can help the working class is a myth and a lie as tons and tons of sociological and educational research has shown ; moreover its not and never will be a Labour policy to say to kids at 10 .5 years your school is down that way.

    The increase over several decades of more kids passing GCSE or A level is not a con ; it’s fact and is worthy of recognition of all the hard work done by our schools mainly comps. and teachers to lift the UK population and improve our human capital so that our universities too expanded. Over a million or more graduates have swarmed into our economy be it business, pharma, technology, ITC, creativity, design..whatever. They are all round us & keep the UK as a leading economy.

    Some City Academies have done well and lifted standards but its false to assume conversion to one = automatic success as many schools can improve results irrespective of a label change. You overstate the effects of these schools as the middle classes tend to fill their places quickly.

    Private schools often pull in upper middle class clever kids who can be stretched by whatever. Expectations are high when you pay big fees. In State schools its important to stretch kids too and attracting good hons. graduates rewarded well like the private schools would help. Some of your comments are elitist at times & suggest many of our students are unintelligent. I disagree and believe most of the changes in the 2000s have helped expand opportunities for most kids.

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